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Stile Antico: What Sweeter Music Can We Bring?

available at Amazon
Puer Natus Est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, Stile Antico

(released on October 12, 2010)
HMU 807517 | 78'09"

Other Christmas Recommendations:

available at Amazon
The Cherry Tree, Anonymous 4
Around this time of the year we make some recommendations of the best CDs we have heard and reviewed in the previous year, which might make good gifts to the musically discriminating people in your life. For discs of Christmas music, we are unlikely to recommend anything too obvious or full of chestnuts, but compilations of unusual Christmas music, performed beautifully, do sometimes make the cut. Having already enjoyed the recordings of this relatively new English choir, Stile Antico -- offerings of John Sheppard, Song of Songs settings, Tallis and Bird, and other Tudor polyphony -- we were dismayed that the group was in Washington last month, to perform for a radio program at NPR, without having a public concert arranged anywhere.

The group's latest offering certainly satisfies our requirements for a Christmas CD easy to recommend: gorgeous motets (mostly) for Advent and Christmas by Tallis, Byrd, Taverner, Sheppard, and White, all grouped around the three surviving movements of Thomas Tallis's seven-voice Mass on the Christmas introit Puer natus est (in a reconstruction by Sally Dunkley). The Agnus Dei of this rather striking Mass setting is the centerpiece of this recording, especially the circling invocations for peace in the Dona nobis pacem, as the music seems caught up in an ecstatic cycle (Harry Christophers also recorded this movement with The Sixteen a few years ago). Perhaps my ear is becoming more critical of the group's sound with each new recording, but some of the tracks on this disc are the least polished heard from them yet -- still very good but with more infelicities of intonation and individual tone (quivering or unstable support, nasality or other unpleasantness) that stick out here and there, most notably in Taverner's Audivi vocem de caelo -- a text actually intended for All Saints Day (November 1). A few quibbles aside, the sound in general is still very beautiful (hear some excerpts at the group's Web site).

The sopranos, so refined and so consistent, are pushed to the limits in Robert White's otherwise glorious alternatim setting of the Magnificat (not especially meant for Christmas, of course). Some of the problems crop up most in the relatively simple pieces from William Byrd's Gradualia I (1605): Rorate caeli desuper, Tollite portas, and Ave Maria, as if having only four parts causes the group to lose some of its balance, although Ecce virgo concipiet is spotless. With the extensive setting of Verbum caro, Stile Antico shows again its mastery over the dense polyphony of John Sheppard. Even the chant pieces, including a complete performance of the introit that is the cantus firmus of the Tallis Mass, have a more fluid and convincing style of performance than heard on their previous releases. The first piece on the disc just barely makes it into the Christmas season -- Tallis's extraordinary Videte miraculum, for Purification (February 2) -- but it is well worth the detour.

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